HL Deb 20 May 2004 vol 661 cc914-25

1.45 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 April be approved [17th Report from the Joint Committee and 5th Report from the Merits Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the House consider the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2004. I shall speak also to the direction given by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under Section 5IB of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. They were laid before this House on 20 and 28 April 2004 respectively.

The order empowers the Secretary of State to act on the Independent Monitoring Commission's recommendations in respect of MLAs' salaries and financial assistance to parties. The direction stops the payment of financial assistance to two parties, Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party, for a period of 12 months. The order and direction are made in the light of the first report of the IMC on the incidence of paramilitary activity laid before Parliament on 20 April.

The commission found that paramilitary activity was still at a disturbingly high level and that, in its view, two parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Fein and the PUP, have links with paramilitary groups. It recommended that the Secretary of State should, consider taking action in respect of the salary of Assembly members and/or the funding of Assembly parties, so as to impose an appropriate financial measure in respect of Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party".

The modification order was designed to facilitate such a step. It modifies the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which was amended by the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Act 2003 to broaden the range of measures that the Assembly could take against parties on the grounds that they were not committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means; or on the grounds that they were not committed to such of their Members as are or might become Ministers or junior Ministers observing other terms of the pledge of office. The Assembly may take these measures by means of a cross-community vote. They include exclusion from ministerial office, and reduction of pay and financial assistance to parties.

This legislation also inserted a provision in the 1998 Act allowing the Secretary of State to take such steps by direction in circumstances where the IMC had recommended such a step; and where the Assembly had itself tried to take such a step and failed to do so due to lack of cross-community support. However, in the absence of a sitting Assembly, it has been necessary to make a modification order to remove the prior requirement for a resolution of the Assembly having failed, in order that the Secretary of State might exercise the power in relation to the recommendation of the IMC. The Secretary of State concluded, following an interval allowed for the parties to make representations, that he should take steps in respect of the financial assistance payable to Sinn Fein and the PUP, in line with the IMC's recommendations. The direction made on 28 April therefore provides that assistance payable in accordance with the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Scheme 2002, under the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000, shall not be payable to Sinn Fein or the Progressive Unionist Party from 29 April 2004 to 28 April 2005. The Secretary of State has stated that he will reconsider the matter in the context of the next IMC report, which is expected in about 6 months' time.

We are firmly committed to political progress in Northern Ireland and the restoration of the devolved institutions. But that requires a genuine commitment from all parties to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. We strongly condemn the continuing paramilitary activity described in the IMC report. We believe that the fact of our imposing the measures, as well as the substance of them, demonstrates clearly the unacceptability of the conduct revealed in the report. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 April be approved [17th Report from the Joint Committee and 5th Report from the Merits Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for so clearly outlining what these orders will do. I do not have a great deal to say. However, perhaps I may refer to the reduction of pay for Members of the Assembly. There is one point that should not be forgotten. It is a sorry state of affairs that we are still in this position, which we are in for one reason and one reason only. The suspension, in my opinion, is caused by one party and one party only. It knows, and all your Lordships know, who it is; that is, Sinn Fein/IRA.

Sinn Fein/IRA finds it quite impossible to divorce itself from paramilitary terrorist force, either north or south of the border. Daily, it is giving up so much of what has been achieved by itself as a political democratic party and by others who have made concessions and worked with it to try to create the environment in which power sharing can take place in order for the community in Northern Ireland to move forward on a power-sharing basis.

It is doing the same thing in the Republic. It is putting itself at risk. The Taoiseach said that he will not have Sinn Fein sharing power while it is linked to the IRA and has a paramilitary army. It is quite possible that after the next elections there will be a vacuum and that the opportunity for Sinn Fein will be there to take power. I sincerely hope that the Taoiseach sticks to his word and does not go back on it. I support the Government, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State in standing by the Taoiseach's word about keeping Sinn Fein out of government until such time as it divorces itself publicly, completely and utterly from militarism.

It does not look as though the situation will change very quickly. However, if that is the situation, it is obviously right that Members of the Assembly—the MLAs—should unfortunately have to take a reduction in their salaries because they are not able to fulfil their jobs completely.

This may be a red herring, but I am very concerned about the infrastructure of the Assembly while Stormont is suspended. The longer the situation goes on, the more we shall see competent officials weep away. When the Assembly reassembles, I suspect that the government of the day will find themselves short of experience, as well as competent civil servants and those who are required to run the establishment. I put it to the Government that they should pay some attention to what is happening there. Perhaps they are, but I do not know that. That is not entirely a criticism; it is more of a warning.

The second part of the order effectively fines Sinn Fein/ IRA in order to stop funds being paid to it. Of course, I support that. Personally, I think that that is too light a touch. I was horrified, and I pressed the Secretary of State on the matter, that it should still be allowed to have access and to draw allowances from Westminster. The response from the Government was that they wanted to keep the channels of communication open. That is a very naïve response.

The channels of communication are open all of the time. One does not have to draw allowances, walk about in the corridors and have meetings in the meeting rooms at Westminster in order to keep communications open with the Government, even if one is a terrorist movement. As we all know—I do not criticise this either—everyone can get access and have communication to government in one way or another as regards politics and what is going on in Northern Ireland.

I apologise for speaking for rather longer than I had intended. I have taken all of three minutes, but I thought that I might do it in 30 seconds. I support the Government in bringing forward these measures today.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the order. We are where we are. It is very unfortunate that with the Assembly not sitting the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission could not have gone, in the first instance, to the Assembly for consideration.

As I understand it, when the order was put in earlier, it was for the Secretary of State to use as a longstop if the Assembly was found to be unable to act on any of these recommendations. In the case of Sinn Fein, I do not think that the amount of money that it will lose will matter a jot to its accounts. Its impact is essentially symbolic. However, in the case of the PUP, with only one MLA, it will be a very severe loss of financial assistance.

I think that we are reiterating once more that the present impasse can be solved only if Sinn Fein now declares quite unequivocally that the war is over. That is the import of the order, rather than the amount of money involved. We must all hope and pray that there will be a restoration. However, as I have said before in your Lordships' House, that is now very much in Sinn Fein's hands. The irony is that if Sinn Fein does not move in order that we can restore the devolutionary settlement, it will have risked direct rule, I suspect, for a very long time to come unless it gives us a real initiative.

Noble Lords on these Benches support the order, but we hope that in taking a longer perspective Sinn Fein will, as soon as possible, take the sort of initiative that everyone is imploring it to take so that there can be restored devolved government in Northern Ireland.

2 p.m.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, will be pleased to know that I praise the Government for acting swiftly on the Independent Monitoring Commission's first report and for imposing the financial burdens and penalties. That comes not a moment too soon. However, that action must be a turning point in the political process as a whole in Northern Ireland. It must not be a token sanction against those parties that have consistently prevented the establishment of devolution as envisaged under the Belfast agreement.

The IMC's continuing work and future reports must be properly used as a mechanism for testing whether certain organisations are eligible to be in the political process given the broken promises under the Mitchel principles and the Belfast agreement.

It is due exactly to the failures of certain parties that we are here today, and let us not forget that it is due also to the failure of the British and Irish Governments to hold those double-dealing organisations to account under their international commitments to pursue their goals by purely peaceful means. We are here today because the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right honourable Paul Murphy MP, has accepted the findings of the IMC and has finally come to hold the view of the vast majority of those living in the Province, that, PUP and Sinn Fein/IRA are not committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful means". Last week the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, revealed that there have been almost 1,700 paramilitary-style attacks in Northern Ireland since January 1998. The chief constable said that just over 600 of those attacks were carried out by republicans, mostly by the IRA, with loyalists carrying out just under 1,100. While most of the paramilitary organisations in question are apparently still on ceasefire, the people of Northern Ireland are faced with the shocking reality of daily newspaper and television reports detailing murders, shootings, beatings, abductions and expulsions by these very same groups. There comes a time when one has to say that enough is enough, and now is the time for this Government to state unequivocally that the transition phase of the political process is over. The inter-governmental strategy of a carrot-led, drip-feed, softly-softly process—placating those who purport to be weaning their organisations off violence and rehabilitating their members through the cold turkey of their apparent conversion to democracy —has totally and utterly failed.

These organisations are either completely with the democratic political process or they are completely against the democratic political process. The Government must shut down the halfway house that they have allowed parties such as Sinn Fein/IRA and the PUP to take refuge in for the past six years. This situation has created a political vacuum in Northern Ireland and those who have prospered and grown in the void of political uncertainty are the political extremists who feed off inter-communal tension and fear.

The Government's response to the first report from the IMC must not be simply a token knee-jerk reaction to stave off criticism in the short term. Rather it must be the beginning of a phase in the political process that drives it home loud and clear to all those who still cast a shadow of terror over our Province. The gun, the baseball bat and the hurley stick must have absolutely no place under the negotiating table in any part of the United Kingdom.

However, it is not just the negotiating table that we need to be concerned with. Many of these paramilitary attacks and shootings are perpetrated by groups whose political wings are completely out of the political loop. These sanctions will not have any effect whatsoever on the UDA/UVF, the LVF, the Real IRA or the other loyalist and republican splinter groups that are still fully active. They do not begin to address the paramilitary gangs who deal in drugs, run extortion rackets and fill the market on both sides of the Irish border with stolen goods. The Northern Ireland Office must not sit on its hands over the summer period concerning these issues. It must draw up plans to deal with this dilemma immediately.

As my party leader indicated in another place last week, this raises difficult questions for the PSNI, Customs & Excise, the Inland Revenue, the Assets Recovery Agency and, indeed, the Electoral Commission. Should the IMC's second report detail a continuation of such criminal paramilitary activity, the people of Northern Ireland will expect prompt action. Therefore people should be aware that the findings of the IMC will have serious repercussions not simply for paramilitary organisations and their political wings, but for the Government and a whole range of statutory agencies. I hope that they are listening to and taking note of this most serious point.

Things as they stand do not bode well for the immediate future in Northern Ireland. There have been many rumours about the intentions of both loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations concerning the Province's interfaces during the walking season this summer. My colleagues and I have heard reports of paramilitaries saying that the IMC can keep the peace at the interfaces this July and August. I do not expect the House to be too surprised by such an attitude on the part of the paramilitaries, but in the light of the IMC report, it is pure folly for them to assume that their actions will go unnoticed and that hotting things up in Belfast and at other flashpoints throughout Northern Ireland this summer will go unpunished. If these rumours are true and they do stir up inter-communal divisions and violence across Northern Ireland, then the IMC's second report will surely have to conclude that not only have these people ignored their commitments under the Belfast agreement, but that the Government's sanctions have been insufficient and ineffective.

The whole point of the IMC is to ensure that the game played by the paramilitaries immediately after the ceasefires, a game of not claiming responsibility and hoping that the authorities would turn a blind eye, is over, and over for good. That is not just because the IMC is determined to keep a spotlight on things, but because the Northern Ireland Office and various statutory agencies are determined to ensure that no one turns a blind eye to these illegal activities.

The time for an inch-by-inch process, defined by the pace of the slowest political learner, Sinn Fein/IRA, has passed. The Government must use the powerful IMC to ensure that the refractory parties engage in the acts of completion that they have long promised and yet denied us. It is my belief that the IMC will provide the Government with the means to enforce these requirements.

In conclusion, I would like to thank most warmly the members of the IMC, one of whom is our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for the impartial and constructive work that they have conducted and continue to do. Their influence has been a purely positive one. My only regret is that had the Government taken action and established it in 2002, as my party recommended, we might well not have had this divisive and disruptive period of suspension.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I am quite certain that all noble Lords in the House this afternoon deeply regret the necessity of bringing forward this order. I am sure that we had all hoped that since the elections last year an accommodation could have been found between the various political parties in Northern Ireland whereby devolution could have been restored, along with a power-sharing executive. It would then have been unnecessary to agree this order today.

The figures just given by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and—even more important—the figures given a fortnight ago by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. in our debate on these issues make frightening reading. The people of Northern Ireland are living in a maelstrom of paramilitary activity, with the resulting murders, executions and kneecappings that are taking place. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, mentioned this, and it is worth while to go into just a little further.

The IMC made its report and the Secretary of State has acted upon it by reducing financial assistance to Sinn Fein and to the one Member who is allegedly the spokesman for the UVF. I think he would regard himself as being unfairly treated. Whereas Sinn Fein has many members who are or were formerly attached to the IRA, David Ervine is there on his own and his party will lose all the financial assistance it has been given. However, even given the curtailment of this financial assistance, Sinn Fein and David Ervine will still retain their offices in Stormont. They have not been taken away from them; they can use those offices today just as they could before the suspension of the Assembly. That seems very unfair.

I have often repeated in the House that a former Prime Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, once said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley. That is not true in this case, but there is a certain parallel. Leaving David Ervine aside for the purpose of this argument, even if we take away its financial assistance in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein will retain its offices within the precincts of this building in the United Kingdom. Although its members attend at Stormont, they do not attend the House at the other end of the building—and yet they retain the financial assistance given to political parties here. It seems to be very unfair: the people who are subject to the order in Stormont are not subject to it here in the United Kingdom.

It has been reported in the press—although it has been vehemently denied by many sources—that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were members of Sinn Fein and the IRA. As I said, that has been denied but the people of Northern Ireland can make up their own minds as to its veracity. It seems a contradictory position for the Government to take if the top spokesmen of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland—Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness—are to be denied financial assistance within the precincts of Northern Ireland but are still allowed to claim it in the United Kingdom in relation to another place. I repeat, it is not true that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley on an issue such as this when one considers the British and Northern Irish sides of the situation.

Does the Minister have any idea of the monetary amount that has been given to Sinn Fein and how much has been withdrawn; how much was given to so-called loyalists through the agency of David Ervine? The financial assistance had not been withdrawn; it is still obtainable here in the United Kingdom.

If the Government are to be even-handed and accept that financial restrictions should be placed on Sinn Fein/IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries, who do not have a representative in the other place, the same restrictions that are placed on the receipt of these moneys in Northern Ireland should apply here.

2.15 p.m.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, I endorse what has been said by my noble friend Lord Rogan and the noble Lord. Lord Fitt, both of whom emphasised very firmly the inadequacy of what has been presented in your Lordships' House today as a way of dealing with the intransigence and violence of paramilitary organisations. I do not wish to appear not to recognise the work of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in so far as he has endeavoured to respond to the report of the IMC, but I should like to put it in context with regard to the finances that are, in real terms, available to republican and loyalist organisations.

I say at the outset that I take some satisfaction from the fact that the first IMC report was to the point and highlighted the matters that those of us who live and work in Northern Ireland know as day-to-day realities. It underpins the judgment of my party, the Ulster Unionist Party, to press for an IMC. The idea was scoffed at, and it was said that it would not make a great deal of difference. I believe that it has made an immense difference in so far as it has shown to the greater public and the international community the extent to which the present situation is being exploited by those still involved, or willing to be involved, in the violence, intimidation and community bullying that is affecting the lives of young people in Northern Ireland.

Let me give an example. I am an elected councillor at local government level, and I chair a committee which works in conjunction with local government arrangements and provides funding for community projects. One matter that has struck me over the years that I have chaired the committee has been the extent to which moneys intended for community good are channelled to prisoners' organisations. The intent was to rehabilitate those who had been offenders and yet, only in the past week, I chaired an appeal from a prisoners' organisation because we had refused to fund a project. Your Lordships may be surprised to learn—I certainly was not—that one of the people who appeared as an appellant was the current OC of the Provisional IRA in my district.

That example illustrates the crossover between those who would perpetuate violence in our community and those who, from whatever extreme wing of the community they may come, perhaps have the intention of moving into a more democratic process. It is a point that cannot and should not be overlooked. One of the saddest things is that the funding for victims throughout the community does not compare at all with the funding that goes towards paramilitary organisations.

While I and most people will welcome the partial constraint on providing money to Sinn Fein and the loyalist paramilitaries, it is only the tip of the iceberg. We still allow these organisations to canvass for funds abroad. The same constraints that exist in Great Britain do not exist in Northern Ireland—there is talk that the Government will change that—and, so far, vast amounts of money come from abroad, from illegal activities and through legitimate channels.

I conclude by pointing out that at the last election for the Northern Ireland Assembly, according to the official declaration, Sinn Fein spent £28,000 on the election. To put that into context, my party spent more than £200,000. Sinn Fein allegedly spent £28,000, but anyone who goes round Northern Ireland at the moment and looks at the preparation for the European election will realise that the Sinn Fein candidate, Bairbre de Brun, has probably already spent in excess of that sort of money in posters put up the length and breadth of Northern Ireland. They are the very best of coloured posters, which are not cheap—as anyone who has stood for election will understand.

I do not want to detract from the steps that have been taken. However, I want to endorse what my noble friends Lord Rogan and Lord Fitt have said about this being the tip of the iceberg. There is not likely to he a long-term benefit to society in Northern Ireland unless the whole activity in this respect is beefed up, so that other loopholes are closed.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I reassure the Minister that I intend to be brief. The Independent Monitoring Commission has done an important service by confirming that continuing breaches of the Belfast agreement have been happening and are still happening. I am happy to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, that those breaches have been just as much committed by loyalist paramilitaries as by republican or nationalist ones. I also agree with the noble Lord on the great importance of combined action by all law-enforcement agencies to counter those breaches and uses of totally illegal force.

I realise that the order is very limited in its scope, but I urge the Government to do two things— perhaps even three—which go beyond the scope of the order. The first is to give a strong lead, mobilising public opinion against violence. In this, the Government will have the support of the constitutional political parties; they enjoy the support of civil society at large in Northern Ireland, and they deserve the support of all the Churches and all the media in organising public resistance to illegal violence. Secondly, I urge the Government to make available the maximum possible ways for individuals to leave behind violence and enter into normal jobs and employment, to work in community development and activities, and to enter legitimate political activity.

In the context of those two forms of action to counter violence, I trust that there will not be renewed political vetting of community associations carrying out legitimate community work and activities. I know that there is anxiety on that score in Northern Ireland at the moment. I hope that the Government recall that forms of political vetting were used in the past and generally found to be counter-productive.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

On the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about the staffing issue and the Assembly staff in post, we all recognise the need to continue to strike a balance between being ready to reactivate the Assembly at short notice on the one hand and being responsible with public money on the other. Some staff have been redeployed, while others remain. We shall continue regularly to review the position of Assembly staff with that balance in mind.

I hope that noble Lords will join me in paying tribute to the staff who assist myself, my noble friend the Lord President of the Council and many other Members while we continue to have to deal with the detail of Northern Ireland decisions here. I am very grateful to them, and I know that all noble Lords are.

All noble Lords have recognised the issue as to whether sanctions on the parties proposed and the particular financial terms under the decision before us today are appropriate. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, raised that issue, as did other noble Lords by reference. Under the scheme for financial assistance to political parties, each party receives £48,000 per annum plus £3,000 for each Assembly Member. In the case of single-member parties, the figure is £27,000. That means that the amounts that Sinn Fein and the PUP are barred from claiming at Stormont stand at £120,000 and £27,000 respectively. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, I regret that I do not have similar figures for allowances payable to Sinn Fein at Westminster. I shall seek to get that information and to pass it on to him.

On an issue that was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, we try to strike a balance in dealing with the steps that the IMC has recommended. We are not persuaded that driving republicans away from the democratic institutions would serve the goal of encouraging republicanism to make that final transition to peaceful and democratic means. I understand the concerns expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Fitt, but we shall keep the situation under review in the light of progress.

The noble Lords, Lord Rogan, Lord Hylton and Lord Maginnis, referred to the serious activities set out in the IMC report. I take this opportunity to echo and endorse the words of all noble Lords who have recognised the valuable work done by the IMC. We know that the Chief Constable takes very seriously the activities set out in the report, and has always been determined to tackle these problems. The establishment of the Crime Operations Department, the introduction of the National Intelligence Model, engagement in the Organised Crime Task Force and with the Assets Recovery Agency all build on the expertise of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in tackling paramilitary activities.

As noble Lords around the House recognise, and as underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, the responsibility for tackling organised crime goes wider than the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The IMC made it clear that all politicians and others in prominent roles must exert every possible influence to bring about a cessation of paramilitary activities. The IMC recognises that organised crime knows no borders, that the issues outlined are extremely serious and that all those involved must speak up on the issues. We are fully committed to ensuring that the Chief Constable is resourced to continue to deliver an efficient and effective police service. We shall not take any risks with the needs of the population in Northern Ireland.

I note the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, on the relative balance of funding between the activities involved in rehabilitation and the activities that in many parts of the country are often underfunded in the view of the local community. I am a bit tempted to echo a term used by one of my noble friends at the Dispatch Box this morning. If we can recover one lost sheep in this field, the community will be safer. But I know that people resent seeing money going towards the rehabilitation of those who have offended at the expense of those in the community who have never offended.

We understand the issues on funding raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. After consulting widely, we recognise that the current arrangements—that is, disapplication—lack transparency and are open to potential abuse. We are therefore inviting views from interested parties on what new arrangements might be put in place. The consultation period will last until 30 June. I have no doubt that those reading the result of the consultation will receive extremely knowledgeable and helpful communication from Members of your Lordships' House.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and all noble Lords in thanking the IMC. We share the noble Lord's desire to encourage all those who wish to see a peaceful summer.

I can but agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who slightly chided the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. Not only one political party is at fault.

However—in support of all noble Lords, specifically the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton— reinstating the Northern Ireland institutions is our absolute priority. We continue to talk to parties about how the central issue of an end to paramilitarism can be resolved and the stability of institutions guaranteed. The review of the operation of the agreement has continued into recent weeks.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan—I think that he raised the issue—it is extremely important that all noble Lords are aware that formal activity is now on hold during the European election period but will resume soon after 10 June. We hope to engage in a period of more formal dialogue at that point.

This IMC report puts down an extremely important marker. We hope that future reports will demonstrate real progress. I thank all noble Lords and I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.